In praise of the Oxford comma, and of Ayn Rand

by Stephen Tall on June 30, 2011

Via David Allan Green and Galleycat comes the earth-shattering news that, according to my colleagues along the corridor in the University’s public affairs department, writers should, “as a general rule,” avoid using the Oxford comma.

What is the ‘Oxford comma?’, I hear (a handful of) you cry. Here I turn to Wikipedia: the ‘Oxford comma’ or the ‘serial comma’ “is the comma used immediately before a coordinating conjunction (usually and or or, and sometimes nor) preceding the final item in a list of three or more items”.

Most famously, it avoids the potential confusion by the apparently apocryphal (such a shame: I’d always believed it was genuine) book dedication:

To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Or there’s the other example cited:

Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.

What I’d not previously come across, til gawd-bless-it Wiki introduced me to it, was the potential for the Oxford comma to create confusion, as in:

To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God

How to avoid such inclarity? Well, here’s the style advice:

This ambiguity does not exist under style recommendations that recommend that appositives be enclosed in parentheses, as in:
To my mother (Ayn Rand) and God

Though my ‘Oxford comma’ preference would be:

To my mother (Ayn Rand), and God

So, for anyone left in doubt, here’s the summary:

  • The list x, y and z is unambiguous if y and z cannot be read as in apposition to x.
  • Equally, x, y, and z is unambiguous if y cannot be read as in apposition to x.
  • If neither y nor y[,] and z can be read as in apposition to x, then both forms of the list are unambiguous; but if y or y[,] and z can be read as in apposition to x, then both forms of the list are ambiguous.
  • x and y and z is unambiguous.
  • Everyone clear?

    And if all that was too much for you here’s a short musical interlude… the song ‘Oxford comma’ by Vampire Weekend, directed (intriguingly) by The IT Crowd‘s Richard Ayoade:

    (Available on YouTube here.)